Poets in Progress
Works by Students of Charlotte Innes
I have taught poetry and how to write poetry to
high school juniors and seniors for about seven years, first to A.P.
and Honors English students at La Cañada High School and currently
to creative writing students at Brentwood, a private school on the
Westside of Los Angeles. I’ve always had bright, highly motivated
students, hungry to sit down and just start writing. Yet, every
year, I end with the sense that I have struggled mightily, that I
have just walked a tightrope, balancing craft in one hand and a
sensitivity to the students’ imaginations in the other.
Why is it so difficult? I recently had a
revelation about my dilemma while reading an article by the French
poet Yves Bonnefoy (in the Times Literary Supplement) in which he
defined poetry as an escape from “conceptual thinking.” Poetry is
the intuitive reaching for experience before it is ordered by words
into some sort of “text,” he said. “It is poetry’s role to work on
words so as to free them from just such entrapments.” The students I
teach are close to the end of their high school careers. They are
old hands at “conceptual thinking.” What wonderful essays they
write! But they come to creative writing in the same mood as Yves
Bonnefoy. They want to be free of the “entrapments” of academic
prose. That’s when the balancing act begins.
Some students feel that freedom from conceptual
thinking simply means writing anything—if they feel it, then it must
be true. Quite often they are stuck in another kind of prison, one
of generalities and abstractions, with saying “it made me happy,”
without describing the specifics of their experiences. Some are so
cerebral, they can never let it rip, never take a look inside
themselves. Quite a few are afraid of poetry. Some think it too
difficult. Others say it’s boring or irrelevant. A number, I
suspect, are simply afraid of what they might uncover. Finally,
there are the instinctive poets. They come with glorious images.
They are drunk with language that has been pent up inside them for
years. Somehow, gently, I have to find a way to say to all of them,
“your experience is authentic and valid, and here’s how you can do
the best work you can with it.” In other words, students need to
feel they can write freely, and yet learn to shape their raw words
into poetry without being overly intellectual about it.
I always begin by having the students
experience the world through their senses. They bring food to class
and describe what it tastes like. They go outside and really listen
to what they can hear. They close their eyes and describe an object
by touch. They experience, period. At the same time, we start
reading poetry and poetic prose writing in which writers are also
exploring their senses. And so it goes on, from opening up and
becoming vulnerable to the world, to issues of craft, slowly moving
through the poetry toolbox of line and space, metaphor and symbol,
always reading good works by great poets to see what can be done.
I’ve also come to focus more and more on sound, on reading aloud, on
listening for the music of a line, on the importance of diction and
word placement, since it is intensity of language, the very taste of
it, that often distinguishes poetry from other kinds of writing.
My teaching methods have mirrored my own
journey in writing poetry. I came to poetry fairly recently after
years as a journalist. And I’ve moved from a more cerebral approach,
that is, getting into the students’ poems with a wrench and
screwdriver, to a more intuitive one, listening carefully to what
they’re saying and how they’re saying it—to gently nudging rather
than shoving them. As I go more deeply into the craft myself, I’ve
become lighter on suggestions for my students, making the tools
available, but not always guiding their hands as they use them.
Nevertheless, I am firm about the craft of
poetry. I want the students to understand that the tools can make
them better poets. I’ve almost always found that students strongly
resist learning craft because they think that more rules are being
foisted on them. I have to take some time explaining or showing them
that the tools are there for them to use, not to beat them over the
I’ve learned to tap into the students’
playfulness. (I’ve yet to find a student of any age who doesn’t like
to play.) Writing iambic pentameter becomes a game. The students
compose lines together, foot by foot, on the board. Then they go
home and try it for themselves. They like the puzzle aspect and the
challenge of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, or any form, for that
matter. I’ve found that restrictions on language (it’s still a game)
prompt them to come up with unusual phrases—if, for example, I tell
them that every line has to end with a concrete noun. I steal
exercises wherever I can find them. One that works really well came
from one of Cecilia Woloch’s workshops. The students think of a
relative (cousin, mother, aunt), then an object, and write a poem
combining the two. One student once wrote a wonderful poem about “my
sister, the fire alarm.” For another exercise, I asked the students
to pick something they liked and then to write a poem on a dark
theme. One girl picked food, and wrote about a hamburger’s drug
I also encourage students to mix genres, that
is, to combine poetry with their other artistic passions. A number
of students have composed music for their poems, or performed rap in
class, or “flow,” a completely spontaneous conversation in rhyme, to
guitar accompaniment. Students have made videos for which their
poems are the narrative. One student wrote a poem about his friend’s
drug addiction and made a DVD to go with it. A few years ago, a girl
who was an accomplished artist, performed what I can only call a
“poem-in-paint.” Holding up a canvas on which she had painted her
poem in multi-colored oils, she recited the poem, which described
life’s “beauty and pain,” its “ephemeral happiness” (she happened to
have a heart condition), ending, “Without a word/ tell me/ how you
feel.” Then, without a word, she took her hand and smeared the words
together so that the canvas now looked like a vibrant abstract
painting. It was a stunning moment that told us in a flash that pain
and pleasure can blur together in unexpected ways.
Finally, since this is my sixth year at
Brentwood, students who are not in my class have started to come to
me with their poems at lunchtimes and breaks. Of the students below,
Calvin was a junior in my class last year; Jane was a 10th grade
lunchtime poet; and Diana was a 9th grade poet whose work appeared
on the back page of the Flyer, the school’s newspaper (for which I
am the advisor) for National Poetry Month. I asked each of the
student poets to comment on what draws them to poetry. Their
comments appear after their poems.
Once sylvan, now nebulous,
Was the road I drove on.
Street lights now streamed,
Lines of formidable direction,
Illuminating the daunting task.
Two minutes prior my phone
Had rung ending my sleep,
Vexing, a serene state of mind.
Drunk slurs, usually disregarded,
I listened too keenly, and cherished.
Glistening blue signs flapped,
Victims of my urgency.
Speed limits and red octagons,
Swayed crestfallen in my wake,
Upset over my negligence.
The words echoed in my ear,
As if the call was still live.
Death by savored poison,
Would be the case,
If the slurs held validity.
My tires did my screaming,
And usurped the position,
Of the silver plated doorbell.
For the entry creaked ajar,
In anticipation of my arrival.
The circle of white faces parted,
Like the curtains to a horror film,
And there, she lay taken,
To the black peace,
Diving into uncharted depths.
Luminous petals caress
They sway, rise to eminence.
Each separate, their own entity.
They offer charity, a safeguard.
Each arm holding their own.
Profound trees pierce
They endure thin rings, bask the thick.
Each stands alone, ripening wisely.
A forest expands
It cultivates, a haven of beauty.
Each cell, a part of its entity.
Calvin Sloan says:
I like poetry that either leaves me thinking, or my heart pumping. Writing is
also very therapeutic at times.
among thorns and browning petals
you tell me it is so much better
than what i suggested.
i believe you,
and i am preparing
black and white,
you were there when we
pound the keys with his feet
i say how beautiful that is
that is ridiculous you say,
that you are scared
that will kill you.
i am preparing for this too,
ripe fruit will soon
grey and green
purple and black
disappear too quickly
the spaces heal
so will the heart
selfish thoughts materialize
black and white
soon to dissipate
dark curls will recede
gentle lids will close
deep eyes sink
a boyish mouth turned down
flesh will drop away
olive and sun kissed
white bone and a hole for the nose
ceasing to be crooked
like the scar that once rested along a knee
like the twisted right ankle
but broken parts remain warped
says: I’m 16. When I
first started listening to David Bowie I never thought of the rock
and roll aspect, it was the words he used that haunted me, images he
painted, and his desperation to express. Then came Jimmy Morrison
with his temptation and ethereal view of the world. And then came
Sylvia. Ms. Sylvia Plath with her prose, cynicism, appropriate
dollop of self-deprecation, and of course her fascinating and
inevitable slip into death. From there I fell in love with Billy
Collins, his accessibility, and Mary Oliver for her delight in
nature. Now I'm really into a newer poet Dana Goodyear and
continuing to discover...
Just the Answer to the Riddle
Tibetan monks express
their low guttural voices
form a wave
of smooth singularity,
crossing the boundaries
of Western normality
by the methodic rhythm,
I cannot peel off,
to this ancient sound,
almost through it,
I am floating on the bottom
I can see them now,
reflecting one another,
unsewn orange cloth
eyes barely closed,
lost in the chant,
but so much more found
My brain forces itself
What is there for a monk
Something so simplistic,
it is beyond me.
an answer to the riddle.
Just the answer.
I can’t figure out what
is already figured
Taken for Granted
boiling it down
to ashy breaths
Diana Stern says: I’m 15 right now. Writing
poetry is just something I naturally do. It’s my automatic response
to emotion, thought, sometimes even boredom, anything really. Ever
since poetry was introduced to me in elementary school, I’ve loved
it. I like Edgar Allen Poe and Pablo Neruda. I can’t say that
there’s a specific poet that’s influenced me, though.
is a blessing
Charlotte Innes teaches creative writing
and journalism at Brentwood School, Los Angeles. She is a freelance
journalist and poet who recently published in The Hudson Review
(Spring 2005). She also won a first prize in the Poetry in the
Windows V contest (2003). She writes about books and writers for
various newspapers and periodicals including the Los Angeles Times
and The Nation.